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UFC on ESPN 2: Barboza vs. Gaethje - Fights to make

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All the best, most interesting, and unashamedly coolest fights the UFC needs to book following their latest card in Philadelphia, PA.

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The UFC’s second ESPN card got off to a rough start. Eight of the night’s first ten fights went to decision. And even if they weren’t terrible bouts, the combination of a lack of fight-ending violence and TV pacing made for a lot of restless fans. Fortunately, as has been the case for the last few events, what started off slow ended with a bang. Josh Emmett sent Michael Johnson to the land of wind and ghosts, Jack Hermansson insta-subbed David Branch, and Justin Gaethje got another highlight KO over over Edson Barboza to close the show.

So, where does that win put Gaethje in the lightweight pecking order? Is the UFC about to make Michelle Waterson the next strawweight top-contender? And what’s next for Josh Emmett in a stacked featherweight division?

To answer all these questions – and one or two more – I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight-booking methodology from years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. If you’d like to take your own shot at some fantasy fight-booking glory, leave a comment below starting with, “I would not recommend this sport to my enemy, but I was born and I was bred and I was raised to do this.” I’ll pick one winner from the responses to join me for the next card.

This week’s winner is returning BE reader “Yourroleandyou”:

Yourroleandyou here once again; I’m always a big fan of these articles because trying to work out the puzzle of matchmaking is great fun, plus it lets me fantasize about fun possible match-ups, and seeing everyone’s takes is always interesting. Thanks to Zane for hosting this and making picks week-in and week-out, and I hope you enjoy who I’ve got lined up for our winners, losers, and more.

JUSTIN GAETHJE

YR&Y - With a win like that, Justin Gaethje is not far from a title shot. And while the top of the division is tied up, he has a definite path. There are a couple of possible fights for him at the moment. Anthony Pettis had been previously been mentioned as an opponent, and while he’s been open to fights at 155 again, it seems likely he’ll stick around at 170 for a bit longer, given his spectacular debut. There’s also Tony Ferguson, in a fight that would be almost incomprehensibly violent, but nobody knows when he’ll be back again. Conor McGregor could be a ton of fun as well, but it’s probably best not to make fights for him mere days after his retirement, transient though it may be. That leaves the winner of Al Iaquinta and Donald Cerrone’s fight in six weeks at UFC Ottowa. Gaethje and Ragin’ Al were scheduled to fight last August, and Cerrone’s status as an action fighter is legendary. Whoever ends up on top will be at most a fight away from a title shot, but the real winners will be the fans who get to watch it happen.

Zane - Justin Gaethje has come back from a couple rough losses to reassert his name among the over-crowded lightweight contenders. The problem, unfortunately, is that those couple losses are were still pretty definitive, and there are enough fighters looking for a big opportunity that it’s hard to see Gaethje being the guy any of them want to turn to for it. Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier are about to fight for some kind of share of the belt. Does the winner wait for Khabib? If not they’ll need a top contender. And that’s probably a little more likely to be the winner of Iaquinta vs. Cerrone than it is Gaethje. At least that’s if T-Ferg and McGregor are as sidelined as they appear. Assuming all that, then I really like the feeling of a fight with Anthony Pettis. I know Paul Felder wants it too, but Pettis seems like the more likely fighter to make an ESPN headliner or a PPV co-main. Justin Gaethje vs. Anthony Pettis works if lightweight is going to keep being a complete mess.

EDSON BARBOZA

YR&Y - There aren’t too many guys in the top fifteen Edson Barboza hasn’t faced yet. Gillespie would be an interesting fight; he’s the same guy Barboza loses to all the time, but substantially greener. There’s also Alexander Hernandez, but it seems unfair to give him another top ten guy after being decisively turned back by Cerrone. If Iaquinta loses to Cerrone, he might be the perfect opponent, as a top ten guy who isn’t a pressure machine. I wouldn’t mind a rematch with Cerrone either, so let’s go ahead and say the loser of Iaquinta/Cerrone for Barboza (you can accuse me of lazy matchmaking if you like, but when the fights will be this fun I think I can get a pass).

Zane - If Max Holloway loses to Dustin Poirier, it’s hard to imagine him staying at 155. However, if Poirier loses that battle, it seems criminal that we somehow could have gone this long without seeing Poirier face Edson Barboza. Dustin has made himself a much much sharper pocket boxer over the years, but he’s not necessarily the world’s most persistent pressure fighter so much as he has turned himself into a really strong technician on all fronts. That should make for a fascinating matchup if it happens. Iaquinta off a loss to Cerrone wouldn’t be bad either. I also wouldn’t mind at all seeing Paul Felder get a chance to get one back against Barboza, as well as Barboza vs. Cerrone 2. All options considered, Felder’s the one that isn’t dependent on some future fight going just right, so lets go with Edson Barboza vs. Paul Felder 2.

JACK HERMANSSON

YR&Y - A stunning win for Hermansson, running right through a Renzo Gracie black belt and making a dramatic entrance into the top fifteen. He’s proven to be a good talent, but we’ll see if he can compete with the top ten or if that win was a bit of a fluke. He obviously deserves a ranked opponent and may well want to fight at UFC Stockholm, which means that the best guy for him to face next is Uriah Hall, the top ten’s most dedicated gatekeeper. Both men are finishers, and both are capable of rallying from hellacious beatings, so let’s see if Hermansson can keep putting it together on his road to the top or if Hall is able to win two in a row for the first time since 2015.

Zane - Uriah Hall and Brad Tavares are the clear immediately available choices, although I’d be up for the winner of Brunson/Theodorou or Carlos Jr./Heinisch as well. At this point, as a well rounded, violent, and reckless middleweight I’m more or less down to see Hermansson face anyone available, kicking around between 6-15 in the UFC rankings. That really does make Hall the ideal candidate. A spectacular athlete who has a lot of trouble pulling the trigger as often as needed. It’s not hard to imagine Hall getting swarmed for 10 minutes before flooring Hermansson with a huge cross. Or Hermansson simply swarming Hall for a dominating win. Either way the result would likely be very definitive. Hermansson vs. Hall is the right fight to make right now.

JOSH EMMETT

YR&Y - Emmett shook off his ring rust en route to another thunderous KO, establishing that he is a top ten featherweight. There are a couple interesting opponents for him, mostly other prospects, as the division tries to work itself out with Holloway on hiatus for who-knows-how-long and Jose Aldo determined to kill off as many contenders as possible before retiring. Zabit Magomedsharipov just beat Jeremy Stephens (who nearly ended Emmett’s career); Yair Rodriguez could use an opponent after his spectacular KO of The Korean Zombie, and Mirsad Bektic should be ready to return soon, as should Frankie Edgar. Out of those guys, I think Bektic makes the most sense. Both are powerful wrestlers and strikers who can get overwhelmed, and neither seems likely to become a major draw. Emmett has generally stayed active, apart from the hiatus after Stephens, so the timelines should line up as well.

Zane - There are all sorts of options for Emmett right now. Among the ranked featherweights, Calvin Kattar, Yair Rodriguez, and Zabit Magomedsharipov are all coming off big wins — alongside Edgar and Bektic, who are recovering from injuries. Among those, I feel most like I need to see Emmett in there against Yair Rodriguez. Yair’s dynamic kick heavy game could do a lot to fluster Emmett, who looked more than a little hesitant early against Johnson. But, Emmett’s power is always a game changer, and Rodriguez isn’t exactly a controlled defender when moving backwards. A surefire fire-fight no matter who is in control. And the best way to get the most out of two top shelf action fighters looking to make some headway in the featherweight rankings. Josh Emmett vs. Yair Rodriguez is my fight.

MICHELLE WATERSON

YR&Y - Definitely the most impressive fight of her career, but the calls for her to receive a title shot seem more than a little premature, given the fight between Tatiana Suarez and Nina Ansaroff scheduled for UFC 237. Both of them are on more impressive streaks than the Karate Hottie, and their last wins (demolishing Carla Esparza and upsetting Claudia Gadelha, respectively) are more impressive than hers, not counting the one that the winner of this bout will have as well. They might decide to have her jump the line anyway, but in the hope that good sense still rules, I say give her Weili Zhang, who’s just off an impressive win of her own against Tecia Torres and has upside both as a star and as a fighter.

Zane - It really does feel like the UFC may end-run Waterson into a title fight ahead of Suarez or Ansaroff. As an Endeavor client, they’ve put a lot of time into promoting her fights. And as such, she’s likely a much more recognizable challenger than either other woman would be. While I’d like to see her actually have to take on one of the other potential top contenders before getting to the belt, it also feels like Weili Zhang would be a bit of a step back fight for Waterson in terms of notoriety (while also possibly a step up in difficulty). A fight with Claudia Gadelha would probably do the job, even though it’s winner/loser. A notable opponent who is largely seen as one of the division’s elite athletes. The kind of fighter Waterson needs to prove she can defeat, but with enough of a name that she wouldn’t look too bad for losing. Michelle Waterson vs. Claudia Gadelha sounds like a good fight to me. Win that and Waterson getting a shot at the belt would feel a lot more reasonable.

KAROLINA KOWALKIEWICZ

YR&Y - Again, I run the risk of being accused of lazy matchmaking with this pick, but I think it’s just good sense. Tecia Torres started her career 6-1 before going on a tough skid against Jessica Andrade, Joanna, and the aforementioned Zhang, and Karolina has gone two wins-two losses-two wins-two losses thus far. I say we match the two of them up at the last chance saloon and see who can still lay some claim to a top five spot. If you’re that offended, we can do winner vs. loser and give her Cynthia Calvillo, who they seem high on but who has limited experience against the top ten.

Zane - Honestly there’s just about no fight that makes more sense for Karolina Kowalkiewicz than Tecia Torres right now. Torres has found herself running into a wall against bigger, rangier opponents that she wants to clinch fight, only to get out-muscled when she does. Kowalkiewicz is finding herself getting picked off by faster and/or stronger athletes among the elite. Torres offers a lot of those same problems to Kowalkiewicz, while also being at the kind of reach disadvantage that could allow Kowalkiewicz to work her volume kickboxing. The winner stays one of the division’s elite gatekeepers. The loser finds themselves scrapping with the new prospects to stay afloat. Tecia Torres vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz is a must-book fight.

PAUL CRAIG

YR&Y - Another come from behind submission win for the ‘Bear Jew’ to keep himself halfway relevant at light heavyweight. There are a couple of suitably weird opponents for him, including Saparbeg Safarov and Gokhan Saki, but I think they could use him well to build Misha Cirkunov back up. Cirkunov looked like the next big thing but has hit a real rough patch, with losses to meme opponents Volkan Oezdemir and Johnny Walker, along with a fight he had been winning against Glover Texieira. Still, Craig should be winnable for him, but it’s an interesting test of a man who’s winning until he loses and a man who’s scored multiple improbable comebacks.

Zane - Saparbeg Safarov you say? Because I gotta say yes to that. Safarov is a complete wild man with just enough skill to obviously overwhelm a too-green newcomer like Nick Negumereanu, but none of the power or athleticism to compete with guys like Tyson Pedro and Gian Villante. That’s... kinda sorta right where Craig is too. He’s obviously dangerous enough and tricky enough to beat very green, under-developed fighters (and even to score a miraculous comeback over Ankalaev), but for the most part stronger, more natural athletes have had lots of success against him. A fight between the two of them would likely be too weird for words right up until it was over. Paul Craig vs. Saparbeg Safarov in a can’t un-see it thriller.

KEVIN HOLLAND

YR&Y - The prompt says to pick somebody with a cool finish, but the only guy on the prelims to get a finish was Des Green, and I decided I wanted the embodiment of a meme fighter over yet another top twenty-five-ish lightweight. Kevin Holland is, as I said, a meme fighter who accidentally made it to the UFC and been fairly successful. There is nothing this man can’t do, except perhaps execute a boring old gameplan. With that in mind, give him the most generic middleweight possible, a man whom excitement flees from, a real Krysztof Jotko or Brad Tavares. What will win, the unstoppable force or the immovable object?

Zane - I don’t want to see Holland fight anyone other than super weird dudes at 185 lbs. That could be Abu Azaitar or Markus Perez or Omari Akhmedov, or even former welterweight Peter Sobotta. My gut says go with Azaitar, who throws absolute hammers and seems to be a real potential problem, even if his game isn’t particularly deep or technical. It’d be a challenge somewhat akin to Holland’s fight with John Phillips, except against someone much more capable of covering distance, and even less likely to show any reserve in biting down and making things wild. Holland made it clear that he just wants to bang next time he’s in the cage, so give him someone who will be guaranteed to let him... bang, bro. Kevin Holland vs. Abu Azaitar for all the violence.

OTHER FIGHTS: David Branch vs. Brad Tavares, Michael Johnson vs. Myles Jury 2, Kennedy Nzechukwu vs. Marcin Prachnio, Sodiq Yussuf vs. Andre Fili, Sheymon Moraes vs. Dooho Choi, Marina Rodriguez vs. Emily Whitmire, Jessica Aguilar vs. Alex Chambers, Des Green vs. Joaquim Silva, Ross Pearson vs. Joe Lauzon, Kevin Aguilar vs. Hakeem Dawodu, Enrique Barzola vs. Rick Glenn, Gerald Meerschaert vs. Peter Sobotta, Casey Kenney vs. Manny Bermudez, Ray Borg vs. Douglas Silva de Andrade, Maryna Moroz vs. Mara Romero Borella, Sabina Mazo vs. Taila Santos, Alex Perez vs. Kyung Ho Kang, Mark De La Rosa vs. Benito Lopez